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Prime Real Estate
By Shawn Stone

Sunshine State
Directed by John Sayles

In Sunshine State, writer-director John Sayles tells the story of what happens to the community when a large development company descends on a sleepy Florida island. His sense of what a community is—the people and forces that make it work, or not work, as the case may be—is akin to a scientist charting an ecosystem. Sayles is equally interested in (and amused by) the varied and curious human critters in this particular environment.

It’s an ensemble piece, but there are two (more or less) lead characters. Desiree (Angela Bassett) is returning to the island for the first time since she was 15, while Marly (Edie Falco) never left. Both have difficult relationships with a disapproving parent; both have reached some measure of middle-aged disillusionment. The difference is that Desiree’s problems are with the past, while Marly faces an uncertain future. Desiree is the prodigal child, but her disapproving mother (Mary Alice) isn’t putting on any homecoming celebration. Marly can’t seem to get away; her penchant for dating men just passing through is telling. Both have something the developers want: prime real estate.

Interestingly, these women, though the same age, have never met, and never meet in the story. A legacy of segregation. One of the film’s many careful details.

Sayles has always had Woody Allen’s knack for attracting mainstream actors to his independent projects. With Sayles, however, the emphasis is on actor; while Allen tries to snag the hot performer of the moment, Sayles casts strictly for skill. Sunshine State has, arguably, the most accomplished ensemble Sayles has yet put together. Matched with a script rich with nuance and surprise, these actors are at the top of their form.

Most notable are Timothy Hutton as Jack, the landscape architect who invokes Frederick Law Olmstead, supervises the “taming” of nature, and romances Marly; Mary Steenburgen as the self-absorbed chamber-of-commerce organizer; and Jane Alexander as Delia, a community-theater impresario whose florid, Tennessee Williams-style manner masks a cool, calculating mind. Even the cameo appearances are memorable. Alan King and Clifton James are hilarious as the film’s Greek chorus, a couple of rich men waxing philosophical about dreams and schemes on a golf course. Gordon Clapp, as Steenburgen’s tormented husband, makes one comical suicide attempt after another.

The film has a loose, rambling structure. Nothing new for John Sayles (remember City of Hope?), but it fits well with the sunny, laid-back Florida setting. There may be no shortage of scheming, unforgiving and greedy behavior, but no one seems to be in a hurry about it.

The history of Florida is a history of land speculation. The film is especially good at showing how stacked the deck is, in favor of what Marly’s father (grizzled but likable Ralph Waite) bitterly calls the “multinational buzzards.” An octopus would be a better metaphor. With their deep resources, developers attack a desired property quietly, with many arms and from many angles. And the story makes it clear that no matter how many arms you cut off, there’s always another left.

Fur sure: Stuart Little 2.

The Mouse That Soared

Stuart Little 2
Directed by Rob Minkoff

It’s a rare treat when a sequel is better than its predecessor, but such is the case with Stuart Little 2. Whereas the first movie had a nice warmth and coziness to it, this version, directed by Rob Minkoff, leaps off the screen in ways that still are warm and cozy, but with an added sense of adventure and bravado.

The movie is all about growing pains. With big brother George (Jonathan Lipnicki) preferring the company of homo sapiens his own age, and most of his school chums involved in after-school activities, Stuart is in need of a special friend, someone perhaps his own minuscule size. It doesn’t help that loving mom Mrs. Little (Geena Davis) is just a tad overprotective of her furry son, but who can blame her when she sees Stuart (Michael J. Fox) make a winning soccer goal by being stuck on the ball? No sooner has Mr. Little (Hugh Laurie) encouraged Stuart by reminding him that every cloud has a silver lining, than our little mouse has the opportunity to save small bird Margalo (Melanie Griffith) from the menacing clutches of Falcon (who else? James Woods). Together, mouse and bird forge a sweet relationship, enjoying drives in Stuart’s red roadster and watching Vertigo on a portable TV, which looks to them like a drive-in theater.

But just as the Kim Novak character in Vertigo wasn’t who she appeared to be, so is Margalo not exactly the tenderhearted victim she seems. Turns out she’s in a league with the evil Falcon, and has tapped Stuart as entree to the riches of the Little home. Will friendship save the day? Will Stuart, with the aid of family cat Snowbell (Nathan Lane), be able to return Mom’s diamond ring and get back home before breakfast? Can little people really do big things? Screenwriters Bruce Joel Rubin and Douglas Wick make these adventures zing. It helps that we care immensely about the characters, but just imagine the mind-boggling possibilities of Stuart trapped on a garbage barge sailing out of New York Harbor. Or Snowbell stuck in a paint can rolling perilously toward the edge of the top of a skyscraper.

Meanwhile, George learns an important lesson about protecting family, as he, Mr. and Mrs. Little, and baby Martha go in hot pursuit of their missing loved one. Cinematographer Steven Poster’s and production designer Bill Brzeski’s contributions to the movie are such that we’re talking much, much more than simply outstanding use of color (warm melons, yellows and reds predominate) and textures. Indeed, they succeed in transforming modern-day Manhattan into a treasure trove of little neighborhoods, each an exciting adventure for Stuart and company. There’s almost a literacy to the look of the film, which enhances both the concept of family unity and the thrill of the overall adventure. Culminating in a madcap chase over and through Central Park that seamlessly blends the movie’s live and computer-animated effects, Stuart Little 2 is that rare family film that respects its audience enough to hold off from sarcasm (except from the mouth of Snowbell) and “hipness,” and instead deliver a simply marvelous and timeless classic.

—Laura Leon

Out of Their Depth

K-19: The Widowmaker
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Set in 1961 and “inspired by” a true episode in Cold War history, K-19: The Widowmaker is titled after the greatest weapon in the Soviet Union: a ballistic nuclear submarine constructed in response to America’s Polaris missile-bearing subs. The Russian sub was a guarantee that the mutually assured destruction between the two superpowers stayed mutual—until it developed a cooling-system failure that almost ignited World War III. But even before K-19 leaves the dock for its belligerent test run into NATO waters, half a dozen Russians are dead. The crew dubs the sub “the widowmaker,” doomed from the start by Communist cost-cutting measures, party politics, and defective parts. The sub’s fate seems to be sealed when its seaworthy captain is replaced by a rigid apparatchik.

The film is doomed from the start, too. After the masterful suspense of Das Boot and the blockbuster personality conflicts of The Hunt For Red October, sub stories of any nationality have little room left to maneuver. K-19 doesn’t even try to chart new waters, relying on its star power to fuel the “boat” through the high seas of submarine-warfare clichés. But because the true story is a good one, and because the two captains who butt heads under the suffocating bulkheads are played by Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson, the film gets by well enough.

Ford is Capt. Alexei Vostrikov, an ambitious bureaucrat with party connections on his wife’s side. During a pep rally for the test run, he sternly informs the crew, “Much is expected of us. We will not fail.” He then precedes to almost destroy the boat with a morale-building crush-depth dive. Neeson is benevolent Capt. Mikhail Polemin, who tells his usurper that “Crews are like families, and the captain is the father.” Their conflicting command methods constitute most of the onboard drama, although they employ the same gruff and gravel-throated voice of authority for their scuffles (while respectfully ignoring each other’s faltering Russian accents). As for the rest of the crew, don’t you just know that the openly religious young sailor kissing his orthodox cross isn’t going to live long enough to get sent to the Gulag, and that the sniveling greenhorn reactor technician (Peter Sarsgaard) is going to find his courage?

What we don’t know is what a radiation leak can do to crew members stoically trying to prevent a thermonuclear meltdown. This horrific, real-life sequence is one of the few reminders that director Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, Blue Steel) is an action commander of the highest order, a fact that is proven when the sub’s out-of-control ascent hits a polar ice cap. But perhaps due to the tenor of the present time, Bigelow foregoes the subversive originality that made her After Dark and Strange Days films such underappreciated pleasures. Instead, K-19 is unabashedly nostalgic, from the grandly overbearing score by the Kirov Orchestra to the two captains’ reverential invocations of “the motherland.”

It’s also leaden in parts, due to the lack of a definable conflict (the American warship shadowing the sub’s every move is, apparently, on hand only to effect a rescue). The crew’s patriotism is boringly at odds with the sub’s real enemy: Soviet agitprop and the crappy war materials it produced. But maybe we’re supposed to be exalted by the idea of honor among warmongers. And compared to teenage suicide bombers who sneak into civilian zones, maybe the film has a point. Yet even as the reactor chamber reaches 950 degrees, it’s noticeable that K-19’s righteousness is running out of steam.

—Ann Morrow

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